Nica Richards
Deputy online news editor
6 minute read
23 Jan 2022
4:46 pm

Another fishing community in limbo as west coast seismic survey looms

Nica Richards

30 fishing communities relying on the ocean for food and economic security, as well as heritage and identity, will be potentially affected, as well as countless marine life.

A humpback whale near Cape Point. Whales are just some animals adversely affected by seismic survey acoustics. Photo credit: Simon's Town Boat Company/Facebook

Less than one month after civil society groups successfully prevented Shell’s Wild Coast seismic survey, and yet another urgent interdict on the same issue has been filed, this time in the Western Cape. 

Their eyes are set on preventing Australia-based Searcher Seismic and UK division Searcher Geodata (Searcher), using the M/V BGP Pioneer vessel, from conducting 2D and 3D seismic surveys from January. 

On Friday, The Green Connection confirmed the filing of an interdict, which concerns 14 applicants, against Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) minister Gwede Mantashe. 

Other listed respondents are the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (Pasa) and Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy.

The confirming affidavit, filed with the Western Cape High Court, also involves We Are South Africans, and a number of small-scale fishers such as Steenberg’s Cove, the Aukatowa Small Scale Fisheries Cooperative  and Coastal links Langebaan. The applicants will be represented in the High Court by Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi SC.

Tens of thousands of local fisherman at risk if west coast seismic survey goes ahead
Small-scale fishers Christian Adams (left) and Anthony Andrews (right) representing the Steenberg Cove Small Scale Fishers Community, with The Green Connection’s Liziwe McDaid, outside the Western Cape High Court today, in a bid to stop seismic blasting on the West Coast. Photo: Supplied

ALSO READ: Activists suiting up for another interdict, as west coast seismic survey brews

The Green Connection strategic lead Liziwe McDaid said coastal communities from Hondeklipbaai in the Northern Cape, past Langebaan and Saldanha Bay on the west coast, could be affected by the latest bout of airgun blasting. 

“It is outrageous that so soon after everything wrong with Shell’s application had been exposed, do we find ourselves in a very similar position where government and the oil and gas industry are willing to risk the livelihoods of small-scale fishers,” McDaid said on Friday.

Tens of thousands vulnerable 

Searcher’s main downfall according to applicants is the failure to consult fishing communities, much like Shell

In addition, it is being argued the company has not complied with the National Environmental Management Act (Nema) due to not having environmental authorisation. 

It only has an Environmental Management Programme, issued under the Mineral and Petroleum Development Act (MPRDA), which is not available for comment. 

And according to Rhodes University Environmental Monitoring Group researcher and Coastal Justice Network’s Taryn Pereira, this leaves “tens of thousands” of local fishing communities vulnerable to the potentially devastating effects of the survey. 

Tens of thousands of local fisherman at risk if west coast seismic survey goes ahead
How seismic surveys affect marine life. Source: Oceana

Pereira says 30 fishing communities relying on the ocean for food and economic security, as well as heritage and identity, will be potentially affected.

“For intergenerational fisherfolk, who learn to read the ocean and the weather to tell where and when the fish are moving, who have depended upon the ocean through hundreds of years of persecution and oppression, the threat of harm to the ocean life that they are a part of, is deeply disturbing and undermining.

“The impacts of ongoing fossil fuel extraction from the ocean, which this survey is exploring for, affects every single one of us, through its contribution to climate change,” Pereira told The Citizen

According to McDaid, the survey could disrupt the behaviour of snoek, which is endemic to the region and brings in a significant amount of income for fishermen. 

The seismic blasting may affect their feeding grounds and reproductive behaviours, in turn affecting the “future survival of the fish”, she emphasised. 

Searcher is also meant to give fishing organisations seven days’ notice before blasting begins, which Pereira said had also not yet been issued. 

“This is a legal failing, as well as a moral one.”

ALSO READ: Letter of demand sent in attempt to prevent Western Cape seismic survey

Marine life also affected 

We Are South Africans founder Gilbert Martin explained to The Citizen the reason for their interdict is the effects the surveys will have on the marine environment, “as recorded in multiple peer-researched studies”. 

“There [are] ecological and environmental consequences on multiple endangered marine animals, such as the Southern Right Whale and African Penguin, and we cannot understand how the Environmental Assessment was considered.” 

Martin also warned the explorations would affect the Western Cape’s tourism and fishing industries in “catastrophic” fashion. 

The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies’ (Sage) sub-committee on marine ecology and risk mitigation found seismic surveys present “real harm to marine life” that would be irreparable.

Seismic surveys use airguns to probe for the presence of shale gas deposits. 

This can cause acoustic disturbances over 3,000km from survey vessels, with repetitive blasts as often as 10 seconds producing up to 250 decibels. 

Tens of thousands of local fisherman at risk if west coast seismic survey goes ahead
What a typical airgun array used in seismic surveys looks like. Photo: PGS

Under water, sound waves travel much further than air, and are relied on by most wildlife to navigate and communicate. 

ALSO READ: EXPLAINER: Shell’s seismic tests in the Wild Coast

“It therefore constitutes noise pollution and a threat to marine live behavioural patterns and/or survival”, Sage explained. 

This was observed when Shell’s brief survey saw reports of dead fish beginning to emerge along the Wild Coast.  

A dead dolphin washed up in Chintsha, about 20kg of Black Steenbras was found on Tshani beach with “protruding nostrils”, one social media user said. 

Experts have long confirmed seismic surveys not only alter marine life behaviour as animals try to escape the noise, but also disrupt penguins and decimate larval krill populations, a key prey for species such as humpback whales. 

But despite this, no formal research on the effects of seismic surveys have been conducted in South Africa, a very dangerous route to follow, Sage warned. 

Scientists have warned that a lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as “a reason for refusing or postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” 

According to a petition shared by Vuma Earth earlier this month, Searcher was given the go-ahead after the Pasa granted a Reconnaissance Permit on 9 November 2021.

There are at least 17 right holders included in the reconnaissance permit application area boundary. 

2D and 3D seismic surveys will run from the Namibian border, past Cape Town and as far as Cape Agulhas.

Despite the warning signs, the DMRE told The Citizen the “potential impacts of the proposed survey” would range from “insignificant to low significance with mitigation”. 

The department conceded the survey could however cause “physiological injury or mortality, behavioural avoidance, impact on reproductive success or spawning in fish, and collision including entanglement of turtles and impact of seismic surveys on the fishing industry due to the mandatory safety zone around the vessel.” 

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